All of us are making up our lives as we go along. We try on a daily basis to complete our "to do" lists and stay on schedule but there are always distractions and interruptions. Then there are all the people and institutions that want us to follow their script. For many of us this is a turn-off. We would much rather find our own way into the future and spread our wings when we are ready.
Boyhood is another masterwork from Richard Linklater who has already gifted us with his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) about the complications, joys, and perils of intimate relationships in our times. This nearly three-hour film probes the childhood of an East Texas boy from elementary school through his arrival at college. Boyhood is a tantalizing invitation to loosen up, look around, and master the art of improvisation. Welcome to a new world of possibilities and a portal into mindfulness and magic.
A Life Outside the Proverbial Box
Seven-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lives in East Texas with his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), who outshines him in every way with her high grades, verbal dexterity, and blend of discipline and energy. Mason hangs out with his buddies spraying graffiti on walls, collecting arrow heads, and secretly ogling the breasts of models in the lingerie section of mail-order catalogues. Olivia has taken measure of her life and found it wanting. She has come up with a plan that will take them to Houston where she can enroll in college while her mother takes care of the kids.
Mason's teacher is upset with his behavior and bad habits at school. The boy is a daydreamer who spends a lot of time looking out the window. In addition, he does odd things like try to sharpen rocks in the pencil sharpener. Mason seems destined to live a life outside the prescribed standards of school and culture.
Looking for Magic in the Real World
Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), his father, has returned from a trip to Alaska where he did a variety of odd jobs. He's a laid-back man who is fun to be with. He regales his son and daughter with stories and has gifts for them. They go bowling and then pig out on junk food. Both kids are glad when he says he'll be sticking around and they will see more of him. They'd like their parents to get back together again, but they know in their hearts that they won't.
Bullied at school and addicted to video games, Mason is attracted to animals, his collections, and elves. He shocks his father one day by asking, "There's no such thing as real magic in the world, right?" His dad struggles to respond to the question and finally says that in the real world there are not things like elves. We feel empathy for Mason as he wrestles with this answer. We know that something precious is lost when magic and the more-than-human world that spiritual people honor is not acknowledged.
Winging It in the Face of Abuse and Violence at Home
While attending college, Olivia meets and marries a professor (Marco Perella) who has two children of his own. Mason and Samantha get along with their new brother and sister but all are shaken when their stepfather turns out to be an alcoholic with a violent streak. Watching him explode at dinner, we are reminded that many children, like these four, have to come up with ways of winging it in the face of abuse and violence in their own homes. There is no safe way to respond to the rage of an adult or to get rid of the terrible memories of these nightmarish incidents.
Dear Old Dad as a Playful Adult
In contrast to the professor and the Iraq War veteran Olivia marries next, Mason Sr. turns out to be a lovable companion father, taking them to purchase Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and treating them to an Astros baseball game. Over the years, he shares folk songs he's written and on Mason's fifteenth birthday gives him a mixtape of tracks from the Beatles' solo albums. This playfulness cements a bond between father and son that is a boon to this adolescent as he begins to blossom into his own person.
Taking Flack for Living an Improvised Life
The art of improvisation is a path and not a system: it is a modus operandi that anyone can learn at any stage of life. But the world is filled with responsible people who label those who walk this path as "slackers" and losers who lack discipline and perseverance.
Mason picks up an interest in photography and stands out from others in terms of his talent. A teacher compliments him on his photographs but criticizes him for not working hard enough: "It's hard to make art." This is the same message Mason has gotten his entire life. Even the manager at the restaurant where he buses tables joins the chorus of those who are disappointed with what they see as his "easy come, easy go" attitude.
We Are Not Alone
The emotional high point of Boyhood is the party that is thrown for Mason's graduation from high school. His mother is there beaming with pride for having ushered her son to this turning point in his life. Mason Sr. is there with his wife, new baby, and her parents. His sister is back from college and appropriately proud of her brother. The graduate is grateful for the love in the room that has its own improvisatory quality. Mason realizes that he is not alone and will always have those who cherish him to turn to when he needs help.
We're All Just Winging It
By the time Mason comes of age, he is ready to fall in love with a beautiful young woman, to handle a break-up, to try and console the emptiness his mother feels thinking about her empty nest, and to savor a moment with a girl he goes hiking with on his first day at college. When Mason asks his father how to deal with all the mysteries and all the muck-ups of life, he learns, "We're all just winging it." Mason has discovered this path on his own and is now ready to let it take him where he is meant to go.
Boyhood is one of the Best Films of 2014 with top-drawer performances by Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Patricia Arquette as his mother, and Ethan Hawke as his father. Filmed in sequence across 12 years with the same actors, it is a creative drama that captures and conveys the everyday lives of children as they grow, change, and struggle with events they cannot foresee or control. Best of all, Boyhood is one of the most memorable films ever made about the art of improvisation as a path of wisdom, creativity, and personal renewal.
The older we get, the more we feel the need to explore our childhoods and youth. The yearning to visit the past is an attempt to clarify roots and to get in touch with primal experiences. Filmmakers have provided us with a real service by turning us back to the peculiar triumphs, defeats, and mysteries of childhood and youth.
In the book Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories, Kevin Leman and Randy Carlson state:
"Your childhood memories — the words you use to describe them and the feelings you attach to them — say volumes about who you are and how you live today."
Here are some of their questions to spur your journey after watching Boyhood.
"What was your usual mood as a young child? Happy? Sad? Why? Did you ever feel sorry for yourself? Why? What were your brothers and sisters like? Did you get along with them? Why or why not? Did your parents have much time to spend with you? Did you always believe your parents? Can you think of a time when you argued with either one of them? Or a time when you realized that they weren't perfect or invincible? Did you get spanked much as a child? Why? Could you manipulate or ' bluff' your parents? How?
"What frightened you as a child? Can you remember some of your 'scariest' experiences? What were some "most embarrassing" experiences? Who and what were involved? Did you ever feel lonely or rejected? Why?"